After a deadly year, some Mexicans ask AMLO: When is change coming?

Why We Wrote This

Mexico’s president entered office vowing to shake things up. One of his most appealing proposals: fight the country’s widespread violence – but not by using more violence. So why was last year one of Mexico’s deadliest?

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
Relatives of Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre, an activist for women's rights whose body was found last Saturday, take part in a protest to demand justice for her murder, in Juárez, Mexico, on Jan. 19, 2020.

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When Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was still on the campaign trail, he coined a popular refrain: “hugs, not bullets!”

In Spanish, it was pretty catchy: “abrazos, no balazos!” But even more appealing, in a country with one of the world’s worst homicide rates, was the vow behind it: to fight Mexico’s widespread violence with social programs to address root causes, rather than relying on militarized confrontation.

For two decades, as Mexico’s military and organized criminals have clashed, human rights have often been caught in the crosshairs. Then, there are the murders and disappearances themselves. Roughly 60,000 people have gone missing since 2006.

But one year into his administration, many observers say the situation is actually getting worse, with space for criticism shrinking. Last year was one of the deadliest in Mexico’s recent history: On average, 95 people were killed per day. It’s time to make good on the promises of a new approach, critics say.

“The risk is sending a message of impunity to security forces and organized criminals that will be taken as carte blanche for further abuses,” says José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, in Mexico City last week.

In the past week, David Flores says, he’s lost all hope for Mexico’s future.

Last Saturday, his dear friend Isabel Cabanillas de la Torre was shot riding her bike home in the northern city of Juárez. The murder of Ms. Cabanillas de la Torre, a promising artist and young mother, comes on the heels of the deadliest year in Mexico’s recent history: On average 95 people were killed per day in 2019, just over 34,500 in total.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to by his initials, AMLO, was elected on the promise to end crime and corruption, and a new approach to fighting violence.

“I don’t want to say the situation was better before, but AMLO hasn’t presented any kind of hope or promise,” says Mr. Flores, a social activist and artist who met Ms. Cabanillas de la Torre through his artist collective and bakery, Rezizte. Her death “is proof that violence continues, even with AMLO in power.”

On the campaign trail, AMLO spoke passionately about the need for respect for Mexican citizens, whose human rights have been trampled over the past nearly two decades as the military and organized criminals have clashed, with civilians often caught in the conflict. “Hugs, not bullets,” he vowed, saying the root causes of cartel violence could be better combated with anti-poverty programs, drug detox efforts, and reintegrating criminals into society, not militarized confrontation.

But one year into office, and it isn’t just victims’ friends and families who say the situation hasn’t improved – some observers argue it’s getting worse, and that space for criticism is shrinking.

Strategies to fight crime appear unchanged – with the rollout of a National Guard last June that’s meant to eventually replace the military’s presence on Mexican streets, but is still made up of members trained in the armed forces. The new head of the National Human Rights Commission, which is meant to be an autonomous body that investigates rights violations, has been the focus of controversy in her few months at the helm. In November, she questioned whether journalists have been killed during AMLO’s administration. There have been an estimated 11 such killings since he took office. And a recently proposed judicial reform designed to combat soaring crime has been accused of putting citizens’ rights at risk in the name of security and collaborating with the United States.

“There is no serious accountability,” says José Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, who was in Mexico City last week to launch the organization’s 2020 world report. “The approach to law enforcement and the war on drugs is pretty much the same prescription as the previous administration. And the risk is sending a message of impunity to security forces and organized criminals that will be taken as carte blanche for further abuses.”

Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters
Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a news conference in Juárez, Mexico, on Jan. 10, 2020. Critics say that the president's vows of a new approach against violence have fallen short during his first year in office.

Watching for change

AMLO inherited a country suffering some of the worst homicide rates in the world and a dire human rights record. The government estimates that roughly 60,000 people have disappeared since 2006.

His administration has been lauded for working to identify the missing, announcing last spring there was “no financial ceiling” for the government’s search efforts. At least 26,000 bodies are in government custody, waiting to be identified.

And the president has continued to affirm a commitment to human rights. “The state doesn’t violate human rights in these times; it’s no longer the main violator of human rights,” Mr. López Obrador said in his daily press conference last Monday. “It’s forbidden to violate human rights, and public servants must guarantee human rights and protect the lives of all people.”

Despite important steps to identify Mexico’s long list of missing people, critics see few efforts to create concrete policies that might prevent future disappearances. They say his campaign promise of approaching violence with “hugs, not bullets” has not been fleshed out beyond the catchy name: “abrazos, no balazos” in Spanish.

“He had the opportunity to start from zero to deal with the record of human rights atrocities” committed over the past two administrations, Mr. Vivanco says. “After a year it looks like we are dealing with an administration that is not only unwilling, but uninterested.”

President López Obrador has pinned much of the blame for Mexico’s violence on previous governments. And despite last year’s record death toll, he remains popular. In a November tally by pollster Buendía y Laredo, AMLO maintained roughly 67% support. But human rights organizations fear that a failure to take responsibility for today’s problems – even if they weren’t created by AMLO – presents further risks.

Local human rights organizations and advocates that saw AMLO as an ally before his election are now being pushed aside and ignored, says Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor of history and politics at Mexico’s Center for Economic Research and Teaching.

“Once he came to power he operated under a very important distinction between ‘the people’ and civil society,” says Mr. Bravo. “‘The people’ are real Mexicans who he claims to represent and to understand. But civil society organizations,” pressuring for action on human rights or corruption, “are suddenly organizations that lobby for special interests or are influenced by foreign governments or money. They have no democratic legitimacy to him.” It’s meant fewer opportunities for human rights advocates to discuss their agendas with this administration, he says, with the exception of a few key, high-profile cases, like the disappearance of 43 students under AMLO’s predecessor.

Mr. Flores, in Juárez, says his collective has been in the forefront of social action for over a decade, fighting for awareness around migrant rights and citizen abuses in Juárez. For the first time, he says he feels vulnerable. If Ms. Cabanillas de la Torre, a relative newcomer to the collective who was involved in other groups as well, was possibly murdered for her activism, as some fear, where does that leave even more visible activists like himself?

“We don’t have hope for justice, because in Mexico nothing is resolved,” he says. “Even with an investigation there’s no justice. And even with justice our Isabel won’t come back.”

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